LANESBORO — When you catch that fat rainbow trout April 17, the opener of the regular trout-fishing season, you might want to thank a hatchery because that is where it was reared.

If you catch a brown or a brook trout, there’s also a good chance a hatchery played a role in getting that fish into the stream.

While southeastern Minnesota’s streams no longer depend as heavily on stocking as they did 50 years ago when they were in much poorer shape, hatcheries still play a big role in providing recreation and an economic wallop for the state.

Fishing is indeed big business in Minnesota.

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The American Sportfishing Association reports 1,859,000 anglers in Minnesota spent $2.7 billion on their sport in 2018, bringing a $4.4 billion boost and 28,120 jobs to the state. That number was even higher in 2020 because in the COVID pandemic, fishing surged. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources figures show 1,215,113 licenses were sold in 2020, up 10 percent from the 1,102,433 of the previous year. Trout stamp sales rose even more, jumping 27 percent to 170,715, up from the 134,619 in 2019.

All those trout anglers create a huge business. Trout Unlimited did a survey of the impact of trout fishing in the Driftless Region, a 24,000-square-mile region of bluffs, deep valley and thousands of spring-fed streams in southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northeast Iowa and a bit of northwest Illinois and found in 2015 trout anglers accounted for $1.8 billion in economic impact. Minnesota makes up 20 to 25 percent of the Driftless.

To help fuel the fishing economic juggernaut, the DNR has 15 hatcheries spread out across the state. Four of them are for coldwater species only such as trout and splake. Three — Lanesboro, Crystal Springs near Elba and Peterson — are in this region while the fourth — Remer — is in central Minnesota. All are located next to major springs that provide all the cold water needed for the work.

The four “provide 1.7 million trout each year for stocking into 200 lakes and 100 streams throughout Minnesota,” according to the DNR. Scott Sindelar, hatchery supervisor in Lanesboro, said his fish are stocked locally but also as far north at International Falls where there are lake trout lakes.

In all, the hatcheries in fiscal year 2020 cost $2,619,564 to run. Money came from the Game and Fish Fund, the Heritage Enhancement Fund, the Trout Stamp Fund, and a gift that was received specifically for one of the hatcheries, according Paula Phelps, head of the DNR hatchery program.

Crystal Springs had to have all its fish killed several years ago because of a fungus but fully reopened in early 2019, said Luke Jadwin, hatchery supervisor

The oldest and biggest coldwater hatchery is Lanesboro that is now getting a major upgrade that is expected to be done in mid-summer and cost $4 million to $5 million, Sindelar said. The hatchery along Duschee Creek was bought nearly a century ago and the main buildings, which were about seven decades old, were deteriorating badly. The DNR got bonding money to pay for the new buildings.

Workers add to the roof of the new building at the state’s Lanesboro Fish Hatchery. The work, being done to replace deteriorating buildings, should be done in early summer. (John Weiss / sports@postbulletin.com)
Workers add to the roof of the new building at the state’s Lanesboro Fish Hatchery. The work, being done to replace deteriorating buildings, should be done in early summer. (John Weiss / sports@postbulletin.com)

Through all the work, the DNR crew continued taking in trout eggs, stripping eggs from the big brood stock and rearing them. “It’s been a struggle at times,” he said, but they did it.

Rainbow trout are stocked mostly at a catchable size — 10 to 12 inches — and don’t reproduce in the streams. Instead, they are meant to offer sport to those who want to catch a meal of fish in streams, the pond next to Lanesboro City Hall and the one at Foster Arend Park in north Rochester, as well as other waters. Rainbows are considered a bit easier to catch than brown or brook trout.

While they are intended to be more for families and novices, more hardcore trout anglers also get a kick out of catching them, often releasing them. At times, the trout aren’t caught for a year or two and can grow to nearly 20 inches.

Lanesboro has capacity to rear about 2.4 million trout eggs and produces about 100,000 pound of rainbow and brown trout annually. Other hatcheries produce more rainbows or browns, as well as brook trout and splake.

The number of rainbows stocked has remained much the same over the years, said Vaughn Snook, assistant DNR fisheries supervisor.

Brown trout are a different, more complicated, story. They were introduced into the region — brookies are the only native fish - more than a century ago.

Several decades ago, the streams were in horrid shape because of poor land use so most fish caught had to be stocked. But now, the number of browns stocked is about half of what they once were because of better land use as well as major habitat improvements.

“Fish stocking is just one of the tools available to Minnesota's fisheries managers to use in managing the fish populations in lakes and stream,” according to the DNR. “Stocking tends to be the first management technique employed when a fishery is depleted. It can provide some instant, but temporary relief to a collapsed fishery.”

Despite the improvements to streams, Lanesboro and the other hatcheries are still needed, but in a different way, Sindelar said. “The needs of the streams are changing,” he said. “It serves the same purpose, it’s still a valuable tool.”

While many of the browns caught now are wild, he pointed out that many of the wilds are from fish that were stocked as fry, fingerlings or adults years ago. Knowing how many fish caught annually are from hatcheries is “difficult to answer,” he said.

Stocking too many fish in a stream actually works again fishing because it overpopulates streams that have only a certain amount of food; fish therefore grow slower, he said. At times, however, they will stock hatchery fish in a healthy stream to add to genetic diversity, he said.

Sindelar said he grew up trout fishing in northeast Iowa and knew from his youth he wanted to be in some outdoors field. When talking about the work he and his crew does, you could feel the pride. “Absolutely, it’s something you see the benefits every day especially when you are out stocking, talking to the anglers,” he said. “You get a sense of how happy they are to catch things, especially younger anglers.” He said he’s working with something that brings happiness to a lot of people.

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 40 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"